In reversal, defense seeks single trial in 4 Seminole Heights slayings

Howell Donaldson’s defense also wants a judge to bar mention of the phrase “serial killer” from his trial.
Howell Donaldson III sits in a Tampa courtroom during a 2018 hearing.
Howell Donaldson III sits in a Tampa courtroom during a 2018 hearing. [ Times (2018) ]
Published Oct. 10, 2022|Updated Oct. 10, 2022

TAMPA — Lawyers for Howell Donaldson III, the man accused of four Seminole Heights slayings, worked hard to persuade a judge to split the case into four trials.

They argued that each of the four killings was distinct in time, place and circumstances, and thus each murder charge should be the subject of its own trial. A judge agreed.

But now they’ve backtracked.

Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt, whose office represents Donaldson, last week asked a judge to re-combine the four murder charges to make them the subject of a single trial. Her request came after an appeals court earlier this year ruled that each jury should at least be able to hear about evidence of the other three killings — namely, that they occurred with the same gun.

The purpose of splitting the case into four trials, Holt wrote, was to promote a fair determination of Donaldson’s guilt or innocence by guarding against a jury hearing about evidence unrelated to the individual crimes. But with the appeals court’s decision that the ballistic evidence sufficiently connects the four murders, there is no longer a reason to try them separately, Holt wrote.

Related: Prosecutors release photographs documenting Seminole Heights killings investigation

The request marks an apparent shift in the defense’s trial strategy, one that could see the long-running, closely watched case reach a conclusion much quicker than was once anticipated.

It came on the heels of another defense request: They want a judge to bar prosecutors, witnesses or court personnel from uttering “serial killer” or “Seminole Heights serial killer” during the trial.

Those phrases were uttered repeatedly by Tampa police and in the news media in the fall of 2017 as investigators sought the person they said was responsible for four random shootings.

Related: 'Seminole Heights killer' came up in Google searches on suspect's phone, warrant says

The ensuing publicity has been “highly prejudicial” and “detrimental” to Donaldson’s ability to receive a fair trial, Holt wrote. Mention of such phrases would only further hinder his right to a fair trial.

For the same reason, the defense also wants to bar any mention of any tattoos Donaldson has, or their meanings. In a court paper, they did not elaborate on Donaldson’s tattoos or what would make them prejudicial.

State prosecutors have until later this month to respond to the defense’s pretrial requests. They have consistently opposed splitting the case into four trials. They argued that the crimes were part of a spree, with links that made them “inextricably intertwined.” A trial court’s decision to bar evidence of the other three homicides in each trial would hurt their ability to prove their case, they argued.

A judge is set to hear pretrial arguments in November. Donaldson, 29, is expected to go to trial sometime next summer.

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Related: Friend says suspect in Seminole Heights killings was happy and affable days before first killing

This month marks five years since the killings, which terrorized the southeast Seminole Heights neighborhood and prompted an intense 51-day manhunt and a deluge of national and international media attention.

Police said Donaldson’s .40 caliber Glock handgun linked him to spent bullet shell casings at the four crime scenes. He is charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa, Anthony Naiboa and Ronald Felton.

If Donaldson is convicted, prosecutors plan to seek a death sentence.